Ever since the end of the Cold War, it was obvious that due to the massive reductions in defense spending by NATO members few could operate along side us anymore. This progression can be seen in the three main conflicts since the end of the Cold War. In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, most of NATO was capable of at least sending a squadron of aircraft. By 1999’s Kosovo War most of NATO was no longer capable of operating with us but instead spent the war hanging back and stretching while we did the heavy lifting. In 2003, most of NATO’s militaries had become so out of shape that they were not even able to hang back and stretch while showing the flag.
The one exception to this decline was thought to be Great Britain. Even as old Europe fell by the wayside, we, including myself, thought at least our kinfolk in Britain could still work with us. The last two years in Iraq and Afghanistan has seriously called this assumption into question. This is in no part due to the bravery and professionalism of the British soldier, which is as high as it has always been. Unfortunately, the British government has not funded the British military as much as their soldiers’ dedication and skill merits. This is beginning to cause serious problems as the British military, like ours, needs to purchase the expensive equipment required for counter insurgency operations and to replace the aged Cold War stockpile that is being rapidly burned through in Iraq.
The British are in an especially bad situation regarding counter-insurgency equipment. 15 years of moderate under funding has left the British military a very capable conventional force (as witnessed in Kosovo and Iraq) but without enough modern COIN equipment for even a medium scale operation. We at least had the hundreds of helicopters, UAV’s, counter-battery radar, fast quiet armored vehicles (Strykers), precision weapons, etc. that are the stuff of counter-insurgency. We have had to buy far more than planned, but it wasn’t too expensive. The British would have to buy most of it new which simply hasn’t happened. Since the British government is evidently uninterested in providing more defense funding (billions for health care, not a penny for defense seems to be the reigning philosophy), they should have at least reworked their current questionable spending plans.
EU Referendum Blog has been following the failure of the British government to properly allocate defense monies for some time. Unlike us, Britain is no longer responsible for global security and can safely focus more on either conventional or COIN aspects of their military. I would argue that since the British will mostly be engaged in COIN that they should focus on that capability. However, London’s spending plans indicate an almost entire focus on conventional war even while their soldiers have been fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan for 4 years now. Even then, to save money, the conventional weapons Britain is buying would be of very limited use in an actual war. EU Referendum has an exchange with the Minister of State for Defense over this very issue. For example, the British government is overpaying roughly $4 billion (compared to the excellent and combat proven US Aegis Destroyer) for Type 45 destroyers that have most of their functionality removed. That’s not to say anything about the army’s $20+ billion FRES armored vehicle program that won’t be useful for either conventional or COIN operations, or the Eurofighter, or countless other smaller pointless and/or overpriced programs.
While what little money the British military has is blown on largely useless programs whose only real purpose is to get Britain promoted to the European grown-ups table from the Euro-kiddie table to which France has relegated her, the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan go without. This is becoming a problem for us and is growing worse every month. Without the proper equipment, the British Army has been mostly confined to their barracks, only patrolling in heavily armed convoys. This post from EU Referendum is their latest about the problems in Iraq. Lacking proper vehicles, British soldiers are easy targets on patrol. Lacking proper equipment, British soldiers are easy targets in their barracks. The only options are to stand in place and die, or retreat. When the British retreat, the militias fill in the void as happened in Amarah recently. We now have a situation developing where southern Iraq is being overrun with militias. I would not find it surprising if southern Iraq is more violent than the notorious Sunni Triangle soon (don’t hear much about Anbar anymore, for a reason).
One thing British leadership at all levels can be criticized for was the smug arrogance they took into Iraq and Afghanistan. The general attitude was that the British, unlike those well meaning but clueless Americans, understand “hearts and minds”. The British have been at this for centuries, they know how the game is played. They didn’t wear helmets, ride around in heavily armored vehicles, and do everything to kill any insurgent or terrorist they came across like we foolishly did. What the British forgot though was that they used to be able to operate like that because of the way they dealt with troublemakers. Back in the days of Empire, the British strapped insurgents to cannons, buried British soldiers under a tomb of native skulls, put executed Muslims in coffins with pigs, almost annihilated the Zulu people for Isandlwana, placed the entire Boer population into concentration camps (akin to refuggee camps today) for years, etc. The natives knew the price of misbehavior and so needed little extra encouragement to behave. This allowed the British to easily maintain order with a modicum of sparingly funded military forces. I am not saying the British should do this today, but they should realize that neither can they conduct operations in the laid back manner like they did before.
Though it isn’t easy or cheap and we will never get credit for it, we are learning how to fight a counter insurgency in the most humane way possible. Hopefully, the British will follow suit. If they do not then I don’t think we have any other choice but to not include the British in anymore operations. I always thought it was a mistake relying on NATO so much to help out in Afghanistan. Most NATO militaries have wasted away to such a point that they are little more than glorified crossing guards that shouldn’t be expected to do more than direct traffic in Kabul. As it happened, some, like Norway, requested just that recently (combat forces being used for combat, my goodness, someone get the smelling salts before I feint). The problems in southern Afghanistan are also revealing the hollowness of most NATO forces.
The British are a great people, who produce superb soldiers, and have an excellent history (if we are only half as successful as the British were during their time at the top, the world can count itself very lucky). Despite a smaller stature they still have ability to be a major force for good in the world. We have been good and loyal allies to each other for a century now. Though we are fast approaching such a crossroads, I still pray it never comes to pass that we can no longer say "Non Angli, sed Amici".
I should add that when referring to NATO militaries or forces I do not mean the individual soldiers an officers but the orgranization itself. Like British soldiers, NATO soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are excellent warriors. The Canadian, Spanish, Bulgarian, Polish, etc. soldiers give their best and have on most occasions held their ground while giving far far better than they got. However, with some notable exceptions (Special Forces and the 3rd PPLI Battalion for example), they simply do not receive anything like the funding, equipment, or training they need to conduct sustained offensive operations. They are also mostly bereft of the moral support from back home needed to sustain the casualties necessary to complete their missions.